Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gillespie on modernity

Some time back I reviewed Michael Allen Gillespie’s book The Theological Origins of Modernity in The Review of Metaphysics.  I notice that the review is now available online here.  (Gillespie traces the origins of modernity to the nominalism of William of Ockham.  That is a theme I explored in a recent post.)


  1. Interesting review. Do you have an opinion on the argument made by John Milbank and others in the Radical Orthodoxy crowd that Modernity is a result of Duns Scotus' univocity of being?

  2. Although, I suppose your review does touch on similar issues only with William of Ockham instead of Duns Scouts. Probably should have read the whole thing before commenting!

  3. The Last Superstition and Aquinas arrived yesterday and I'm extremely happy! I stayed up til 4am reading the first few chapters of TLS. I'm loving it! It's way too much better than my philosophy classes way back when I was in college :-) Thanks Dr. Feser! Please write more!

    ~ Mark

  4. Besides me, does it bother anyone that the disastrous changes in academic thought (nominalism, voluntarism, the abandonment of formal and final causality, etc.) that brought about modernity all happened under the watch of Christians during a predominantly Christian era?

  5. "voluntarism" is a vague term. If all it means is that one holds that the will is metaphysically a higher or nobler power than Scotus is a voluntarist. But this doesn't mean that he holds that the natural law is totally arbitrary or that God is unknowable. He thinks that intellect and will are co-causes both ordered to the volitional act. God is a "most-ordered willer".

    "Radical orthodoxy"'s take on Scotus has been debunked most famously by Richard Cross, and in any case is only loosely related to anything Scotus actually ever held. It's largely post-modern thomist propaganda (though I suspect most thomists would disavow their take on Aquinas at this point)

  6. God is a "most-ordered willer".

    Lee, do I really have to explain to you what a metaphysical train-wreck this is? “Most ordered?” By whom and according to what is God ordered? For both those things would have to be prior to His ordered Self.

  7. Is it really so unclear? Obviously it is the act that is ordered. And yes, there is priority and posteriority in God. It runs something like this: essence-persons-attributes-ideas-perfections of creatures. Formally distinct yet really identical.

  8. Charles Taylor makes a similar argument to Dr, Feser that Scotus/Ockham's anti-essentialism was one key move that led to modernity in his book "A Secular Age."
    As to Radical Orthodoxy, I know Jamie Smith has acknowledged a lack of understanding Scotus entirely in "Introducing Radical Orthodoxy." He seems to like Taylor's treatment of the issue in "A Secular Age."

  9. Scotus is not an anti-essentialist. That's just silly. Remember Gilson, Thomists: Scotus is trapped in the choking folds of existence and never makes it the freedom of existence.

  10. Mr. Feser,

    In a couple of places Gillespie drops an observation that nominalism was essential to the development of science.

    I couldn't discern the basis for this, although I've seen that point made by other writers, and it seems that there was a historical connection between nominalism and science inasmuch as some of the earliest proponents of the early scientific worldview - Bacon and Hobbs - considered themselves to be nominalists.

    My questions,

    1. Why is nominalism seen as a basis of science? It would seem that science is actually based on grouping things together based on their properties or essences.

    2. Were people like Bacon and Hobbes doing what you describe in "The Last Superstition" - formally repudiating Aristotelianism while actually keeping it alive in practice?

    Thanks in advance.

  11. @Peter Sean Bradley:

    > In a couple of places Gillespie drops an observation that nominalism was essential to the development of science.
    > I couldn't discern the basis for this, [...]

    Hopefully you've since found the answer, but in case you haven't, you will find your question wonderfully answered in Louis Dupré's Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. A snippet:

    >     Only when the early humanist notion of human creativity came to form a combustive mixture with the negative conclusions of nominalist theology did it cause the cultural explosion that we refer to as modernity. Its impact shattered the organic unity of the Western view of the real. The earliest Ionian concept of physis had combined a physical (in the modern sense!) with an anthropic and divine component. The classical Greek notion of kosmos (used by Plato and Aristotle), as well as the Roman natural, had preserved the idea of the real as a harmonious, all-inclusive whole. Its organic unity had been threatened by the Hebrew-Christian conception of a Creator who remained outside the cosmos. Yet, through his wisdom, support, and grace, he continued to be present in this world. At the end of the Middle Ages, however, nominalist theology effectively removed God from creation. (3)